When Groundhog Day opened in February of 1993, most films released during this time were known as a dumping ground of movies that had studios were burning off to fulfill contractual obligations. Or maybe some TV actor had filmed a movie over summer hiatus and this was when it was released to take advantage of February sweeps.
I remember hearing something that when CB4 was released on March 12 of that year, it had been a dismal winter and the movie peaked the No. 1 slot at $6.5 million over the weekend. Yikes. A No. 1 movie being released now even in a pandemic would make at least that on Thursday night.
Yes, it was a weird time in Hollywood. Bill Murray hadn’t had a big hit since the late 1980s. What About Bob? in 1991 was a modest success. Harold Ramis, who directed and co-wrote it, hadn’t directed a movie since 1986 Club Paradise which was held on the shelf for one year. So, when Groundhog Day was released, people were probably expecting some silly movie where Bill pulls off his usual schtick in a comedy.
And for a while, it seems the movie is heading that way. But you can only stretch a high-concept gimmick so far before it wears thin. The first third of Groundhog Day seems to focus on Phil Connors (Murray), a weatherman from a TV station in Pittsburgh, trying to deal with being stuck in a time loop as he keeps waking up every day in Punxsutawney, Pa. on Feb. 2 as he’s there to cover the predictions by the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil. He is freaked out at first, but begins to use it to his advantage, getting to have sex with a local Nancy Taylor (Marita Geragthy) by making her believe he’s an old classmate of hers. He even runs from the police while driving local blue-collar barflies Gus and Ralph (Rick Ducommun and Rick Overton) home.
Then, he sets his sights on trying to hook up with his younger and inexperienced producer, Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) but as he tries over many days to get her in bed, she rejects his advances each time.
And to quote a line from Murray’s Stripes, “And then depression set it.” Having to relive the same day and having to see Rita who has no memory of what Phil has done causes him to lash out at Rita and his cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliott). In desperation, he steals Punxsutawney Phil and leads authorities on a chase resulting in him driving off a cliff and the vehicles crashes and explodes. But he still wakes up in the same bed and breakfast at 6 a.m. as the clock radio plays Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.”
After repeated suicides only to wake up again, Phil finally tells Rita everything claiming he’s a god which she doesn’t believe. He then begins to tell her things about her that she didn’t tell him and also knows many things about people in the local diner even telling her that a waiter will drop a tray of dishes, which he does. Then, he writes down something on a napkin and hands it to her right before Larry walks in telling her the exact thing he wrote.
Here’s where the movie takes a weird turn. A more traditional movie would’ve ended right here with Rita finally understanding Phil is in the time loop and getting to fail in love with him, just because. And boom, they make love, wake up the next day and it’s Feb. 3. Credits roll.
But no, Ramis (who appears in a cameo as a doctor) and writer, Danny Rubin, decided to change it up. Phil and Rita spend some time together but they don’t do anything sexual. Instead, Rita falls asleep snuggling up to Phil and when he wakes up the next day, it’s still Feb. 2. Rita’s gone back, unaware of what Phil has told her and what she discovered. But Phil has decided to treat people better.
He shows up at Cobbler’s Knob with coffee and pastries for Rita and Larry and even helps Larry carry the equipment. Around town, he starts behaving differently, giving an elderly homeless man all his cash and happily greeting another guest at the B&B (Ken Hudson Campbell) who he was crass and condescending to earlier. But when he sees the homeless man (Les Podewell) later that night, he is weak and cold. So Bill takes him to the hospital but the man dies. Bill tries to help out the man, but unfortunately he keeps dying.
This is to show that even though Phil can make things better for people, he can’t play God. But it gives him the idea to use his knowledge of events before they happen to make things better for everyone. At the hospital, there is a young boy in a cast with a broken leg. Later, Phil catches the boy as he falls out of a tree and not hurting himself. He is able to save Buster Brown (Brian Doyle-Murray), a local civic leader, from choking in a restaurant by giving him the Heimlich Maneuver. He also assists some elderly lady who suddenly get a flat tire as well giving some encouraging advice to a young couple, Fred and Debbie (Michael Shannon in his first role and Hynden Walch) getting cold feet as well as tickets to Wrestlemania as a wedding present.
Eventually, Rita does fall in love with Phil as she sees him as a better person than she anticipated and Phil realizes he doesn’t have to be a jerk to everyone as he was in the beginning. The movie never explains Phil’s behavior at the beginning. He’s just a man who thinks he’s better than everyone else. It also never explains why he’s in a time loop. There’s no need to. At the heart of the movie, it’s still a comedy-drama. No need to get involved in philosophical or scientific explanations.
This ambiguity is why the movie is so well liked after three decades. Ramis had a Jewish upbringing but by filming this movie, he was studying Buddhism. Some Buddhists think that the movie focuses on the notion of samsara that there is a continuous cycle of rebirth of people through human suffering. Other Christians have looked at as if Phil is stuck in Purgatory and must atone for his past sins. At the end when Phil finally does wake up on Feb. 3, he’s ascended and is a better person. Reportedly, people have said they’ve also noticed the themes of reincarnation from Hinduism in Groundhog Day.
It’s such a good movie because you can take away from it whatever you want. There’s not much thematic elements and no profanity. It’s a very clean PG movie compared to what was being released then and now. You can either see it as a spiritual movie or just a comedy-drama with a little sci-fi elements. Ramis said he was worried a lot of religious figures would get mad at him but was surprised by the response over the years.
Unfortunately, this movie also ended the long friendship and work collaboration between Ramis and Murray. Its been reported that Murray was getting angry at people always bothering him on the set and hired a deaf assistant to deal with them. It’s also been reported that Ramis got tired of Murray’s bullying antics on movie sets and got physical with him telling him to knock it off.
Ramis and Murray would never speak again for more than 20 years up until shortly before Ramis’ death this month in 2014. It was an ironic for a movie that’s theme was about a man learning to turn his life around that Murray did the exact opposite. Murray had reportedly refused to be in Stripes if Ramis wasn’t hired. And their friendship and work went back to the National Lampoon Radio Hour.
In the end, Murray gave a shout-out to Ramis at the Oscars that year a painful reminder of the 20 years they were together and the 20 years they were apart. Still, why some may say Groundhog Day is one of the most useless holidays we celebrate, the movie is still enjoyable and should be watched anytime during the week.
What do you think? Please comment.